‘Absolutely insane’: Meet the Steven Bradbury of the Rugby World Cup final

It’s taken an outlandish series of events but if the Springboks beat New Zealand in the World Cup final there will be one gold medallist who can barely believe his good fortune.

Springboks lock Jean Kleyn has come from a long way back in the pack to feature for Jacques Nienaber’s team against the All Blacks on Sunday AEDT.

Four years ago, South Africa born Kleyn represented Ireland under Joe Schmidt at the 2019 World Cup in Japan after qualifying on residency grounds.

Having been repeatedly overlooked by Schmidt’s successor Andy Farrell, Kleyn was cleared to switch allegiance back to the Springboks in June before being included in Nienaber’s squad.

Even up until Thursday he was considered an outsider for the match day 23 – having played just two games in the tournament – but the Springboks’ decision to go with a 7-1 forwards-backs bench split removed the final barrier.

It’s a journey akin to Australia’s famous Winter Olympian Steve Bradbury who won a speed skating gold medal when his opposition slipped and fell by the wayside.

Ruaidhri O’Connor, a reporter for the Irish Independent, described the task in front of Kleyn at the start of the year.

Jean Kleyn plays in the World Cup final. Ireland picked 12 locks ahead of him across 40 games of this World Cup cycle, he was never in an Andy Farrell squad, yet here he is playing for his home country against New Zealand in France. Incredible story

— Rúaidhrí O’Connor (@RuaidhriOC) October 26, 2023

Even Kleyn finds it incredible.

“It’s a strange one because if you’d asked me six months ago if I at all thought I had any chance of being here at the World Cup final playing for the Springboks, I would have told you you are absolutely insane,” Kleyn said.

“I’ll probably wake up when it’s all said and done and think, ‘was that a dream or did it actually happen?’. It was outside the realm of thinking. It’s been a fantastic journey for me. It’s been an absolute pleasure being part of it.”

Kleyn plays his club football for Munster and he says he’s been receiving support from their fans.

Jean Kleyn runs with the ball during a South Africa training session ahead of their Rugby World Cup France 2023 Final match against New Zealand at Stade des Fauvettes on October 25, 2023 in Domont, France. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“I’ve been absolutely inundated with messages from Munster supporters – obviously only after Ireland fell out. Then they really came after us and said, ‘listen, you’re our second team now, guys’.

“The support was really heartfelt from a lot of Munster fans and it made it a lot easier for me because I thought it would be quite a negative reaction when I declared for the Springboks. From my history with Irish media, I figured there would be a few negative articles but it was resoundingly positive, so I was really happy about that.”

Nienaber’s decision to opt for a 7-1 split has been heralded as a bold risk from the departing Boks coach.

“The team is not 15, it is 23. We always say that. When you do squad selection there are a lot of things that influence that from medical to past performances and a lot of analysis into New Zealand and where we think we can get the edge on them,” Nienaber explained on Thursday.

“Then the discussions starts between the coaches and it goes from a 5:3 to a 6:2 to a 7:1, then it goes back again. It is not a 10-minute discussion, it is hours and hours.”

He was quizzed on why he felt the 7-1 was the best option to tackle the All Blacks.

“I’m not going to say what the strengths and weaknesses of the All Blacks are, that would be stupid,” Nienaber responded.

“But a lot of analysis went into it and at the end we went with a squad of 23. It could have been 6:2, 5:3, it doesn’t matter. You select a team that you think can get a result. The 23 we selected for a reason, and the reason is we think they can deliver and win us a back-to-back World Cup.

“How did the other guys take it? We explain to the whole squad why we are going a certain route. It is not about individual selection. It is for South Africa. As selectors we know there will be pressure on us if we don’t deliver a result but at the back of our minds we know this selection is for South Africa.

“The players take it like that. It is not about person or ego, not that they have egos, but you can’t think of that. You have to think about South Africa and the Springboks.”

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